“Truth”?

 When I was a little kid, there was a huge emphasis on telling the truth. I often felt like the adults in my life had truth-telling mantras tucked into all their pockets.

“Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.”

“Always tell the truth.”

 “Don’t tell a lie or you’ll end up like this:”

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But did I follow their advice? Most of the time, I tried my best to tell the truth, which is more than most of my friends in the local preschool could say. They all went through pretty bad “lying phases” where they’d tell everyone ridiculous fibs like “My daddy owns Disney Land and Sea World.”

Truth is a tricky thing, though. Sometimes, I didn’t know what the truth was, and though I’d do my best by basing my reasoning on what I already knew about the world, I’d end up telling a lie.

In Stephen Jay Gould’s “Sociobiology: the art of storytelling,” the author delves into the idea of “truth,” specifically in regards to Darwinian evolution. Gould focuses on Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s statement that natural selection fails because it “explains too much” (1). Gould, then goes on to talk about how people have tried to use natural selection as a broad truth to explain everything from the largeness of a specific type of beetle to the aggression shown by a male blue bird before his mate has laid eggs. Gould’s argument, I don’t believe, is that natural selection is a lie; but that natural selection is too broad to be a solid truth.

Gould also brings up the idea of “Just So stories.” Rudyard Kipling invented these to explain in whimsical ways how the animals became they way they are. There’s an especially interesting one about how the leopard got its spots.

To sum it up, the leopard and his prey lived in a yellow-brown environment; and as a result of this, “they were ‘sclusively sandy-yellow-brownish all over.” The leopard was the best camouflaged so he had no problem hunting. His prey got irritated with this and migrated to a place with more foliage that cast patches of light and darkness on the ground. They stayed in this area “for a long time,” until they gained patches of light and darkness on their coats and were impossible to see. The leopard spent a long time “wondering where all [his] breakfasts and [his] dinners and [his] teas had gone” before he wandered into the new environment of sunlight and shadows, learned what his prey had done, and changed his own fur to reflect his new home.

Although, Kipling wrote mainly for young audiences, his “Just So Stories” (or at least the one about the leopard) seem to echo a more sophisticated debate—one about evolution, one that even adults hadn’t completely understood (then or now). Kipling’s stories seem to imply the Lamarckian theory, that environment changes animal’s bodies. Of course, many other voices—Lyell, Darwin, etc.—had a part in this debate about evolution; and it’s still hotly contested.

What are all of these different people trying to do? Why the big fuss? They are looking for the truth. Gould says, “Truth, as we understand it, must always be our primary concern” (3). However, much like I did as a child, it is possible that the scientists are wrong, even though they are making assumptions based on what they already know in the world. It is possible that Darwinian natural selection does not explain everything, though it explains a lot.

This is what Gould is getting at by saying that it has been taken too broadly, too comprehensively. Even Darwin did not mean that natural selection is the end all be all. Gould writes: “Darwin was a consistent pluralist who viewed natural selection as the most important agent of evolutionary change, but who accepted a range of other agents and specified the conditions of their presumed effectiveness” (1).

The danger in Darwin’s idea of natural selection always seems to come when trying to compare his ideas about animals to people. Of course, Darwin’s original aim was not to talk about humans at all. Gould echoes this when he says, “the standard foundation of Darwinian just-so stories does not apply to humans” (3). This may be a good time to bring up the ending of the leopard just-so story.

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The Ethiopian goes into the forested area with the leopard and learns what their prey has done about camouflage there. They both decide to change their bodies to better match their new surroundings. The Ethiopian turns his body black so he can hide behind trees and in hollows when hunting for game. The leopard chooses to put spots on his coat; so the Ethiopian dips his black fingers in his black skin and helps the leopard be spotty. Then, this is what follows:

“Said the Leopard, ‘Why didn’t you go spotty too?’

‘Oh, plain black’s best for a nigger,’ said the Ethiopian. ‘Now come along, and we’ll see if we can’t get even with Mr. One-Two-Three-Where’s-your-Breakfast!’

So they went away and lived happily ever afterward, Best Beloved. That is all.

Oh, now and then you will hear grown-ups say, ‘Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the Leopard his spots?’ I don’t think even grown-ups would keep on saying such a silly thing if the Leopard and the Ethiopian hadn’t done it once–do you? But they will never do it again, Best Beloved. They are quite contented as they are.”

Yes, Kipling wrote this many years ago, when different words and ideas were acceptable, but even with that knowledge, the end of this story still is uncomfortable. Of course, there is a large amount of innate racism here against black people (Kipling, after all, wrote “The White Man’s Burden.”) Putting that aside, the black man (it doesn’t matter what his color) is put on level with the leopard. This is the danger of viewing humans in the same way one views animals.

Gould reflects this predicament when he says, “we cannot (ethically, that is) perform the kind of breeding experiments, in standardized environments, that would yield the required information” (3). You might be able to do this with animals, but ethically, you cannot do it with humans; and so, you cannot get enough information about humans to make a correct theory about how natural selection worked in their evolution. 

In fact, there is more than just biological natural selection going on with humans. They have myriad factors that allow them to change for better or for worse. Cultural factors play a huge role in evolutionary changes. These factors have rate, modifiability, and diffusability going for them, according to Gould, which makes them as powerful, if not more powerful, than Darwinian natural selection evolution. With all these different factors, no one can really tell how the black man got black skin.

Yet, Kipling’s story says that the black man got his black skin the same way the leopard got his spots. That is the “truth” that Kipling (fictiously or not) pushed at several generations of children. How many generations of young people were told, in the same way, that it is the “truth” that “women’s aspirations may ultimately be limited by inherent biological differences that will forever leave men the dominant sex” (4) or that “there never will be full parity in jobs, that women will always predominate in the caring tasks” (4)? Like the field of science, “truth” is something that is likely to change with time. It may not be that truth changes but that our perception of what is true changes.

Regardless, Gould may have a point to be wary of story telling because truth is such a tricky concept.

For more “Just So Stories,” go to this link: http://www.boop.org/jan/justso/

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2 Responses to “Truth”?

  1. Your argument makes me think of a friend I have who claims that “Science is truth.” While I essentially understand what she means by that, I have to disagree with her phrasing, because science is not truth. Science is methodology. It is the practice by which we take empirical evidence and form hypotheses that may be the truth for a while, but are open to revision when new evidence is collected. What I took away most from your post is that “truth” is not absolute, or as you put it, it’s a “tricky concept,” and it really is. Truth is constantly being revised as new knowledge is gained about the world. There are some things that are “true” for us today that would have been outrageous even fifty years ago. Furthermore, what is true for one person may not be true for another, because of differences in perception, environment, etc. I think it’s important that we remember how several different perspectives, and how several revisions, have to be taken into account in our pursuit of “truth.”

    Is this a way that we could reconcile literature with science? Both disciplines share this idea of revision. So many authors, poets and essayists revise their work, after all. The “truth” in a writer’s mind often doesn’t get translated to the page (as a writer, I know this feeling) even after several revisions. The “truth” that a scientist attempts to get to also goes through many long sessions of revision.

    (Finally, thank you for the photo of the sleeping leopard. I think it really speaks to the desires of Cal students during midterm season.)

  2. ebbwilliams says:

    I really enjoyed your mediation on truth. I stood out to me because when I was caught lying my mother (the perennial teacher) made me write 1000 times, “Oh what a terrible web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.” The questions that came up for me when I read your piece were what kind of a lie are we talking about in Gould? I think there is something natural in trying to piece together the human story, or all existence in a neat narrative or over-arching theory. There is a need to describe and explain the world around us. These scientific “truths” can only be considered as truths when viewed from the same lens with which the scientists evaluated the phenomena. Scientific method demands bounds and limitations, and thus seems to confine itself to only a little piece of the truth. That methodology seems to be what is lacking in Darwin and what Gould is pointing to. Yet, his guess gives us comfort in explaining an otherwise unknown world.

    Now some wisdom on ideas and beliefs from the movie Dogma:
    Rufus: His only real beef with mankind is the shit that gets carried out in His name. Wars, bigotry, televangelism. The big one, though, is the fractioning of all of the religions. He said mankind got it all wrong by taking a good idea and building a belief structure on it.
    Bethany: You’re saying having beliefs is a bad thing?
    Rufus: I just think it’s better to have ideas. I mean, you can change an idea, changing a belief is trickier. People die for it, people kill for it. The whole of existence is in jeopardy right now, because of the Catholic belief structure regarding this plenary indulgence bullshit. Bartleby and Loki, whether they know it or not, are exploiting that belief. And if they’re successful, you, me… ALL of this ends in a heartbeat, all over a belief.

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